I walked to the beach hoping to find my husband and two drinks waiting for me under a palm tree, but I couldn’t locate him anywhere. Suddenly I heard his voice, and off in the distance I saw him – surrounded by two women, with a very concerned look on his face. He beckoned me forward, and as I walked closer, he shouted “Babe, I told them you are a vet”.
I came to an abrupt halt. In the center of the group was a large, scruffy, blocky headed and beautiful brown dog.
I had seen him earlier in the day. He had been following one of the women around the grounds of our small hotel, and she was now looking at him with a concerned expression.
This is dangerous territory for me. Extremely dangerous.
We had come across many wandering dogs on the island. Gavin and I had even stopped by a nearby veterinary clinic, and it seemed to us that people on this part of the island were making a real effort to tackle the problem. However, the issue of stray dogs is multifactorial and extremely complicated, and sadly, not unique to this vacation spot. That is something that tourists visiting a tropical island for a few nights might not understand.
For background, I must share that I have a very confusing relationship with animals. At times, I consider myself a veterinary pragmatist. Others might call this part of me “old school”. There are animals that end up on my dinner plate, and there are animals that I love like family. I see animals at the hospital that work for a living, but I also meet animals that sleep in a people-bed at night. I have a “practical” side to my personality, one that is able to come to terms with the fact that animals vary in their emotional value to humans. But I also have an extremely vulnerable side. When it comes to the creatures with whom we share this planet, I am often burdened by the cruelty and suffering they face.
These two sides of my personality are constantly at battle. It is exhausting and truthfully, almost debilitating. There is a reason why I no longer work five days a week as a veterinarian. I can only handle so many days before my shoulders ache with burden, worry, guilt, and sadness.
Here at this vacation spot, I found myself in front of a group of people surrounding a stray dog, asking me to save the day. On a beach. On a island. I sighed, knowing full well what would happen.
I took a look at him. The dog had pale gums and was dehydrated. His heart rate seemed quite fast. Bald skin peeked out between rough patches of hair. He also had a palpable firmness in his abdomen. Honestly, for an island dog, the changes were not unusual. Squiggly balls of intestinal parasites coupled with mange and fleas could have been responsible. But more serious ailments could also do it.
I had no doubt this island was home to many more like this big brown guy. He was sweet. It is also clear that he was smart, as he managed to find this nice woman. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him, constantly stoking his scraggly coat.
I smiled at her and told her she was kind. I told her he was not well, but life on an island is difficult. In broken English she asked “Is he dying?”
Hmmm… well, it was 3:00 in the afternoon, blazing hot, and this pup had managed to score a shady spot under a tree, with a lovely lady providing free massage, pizza crusts, bottled mineral water. “No, he is not dying” I said.
Then came the inevitable question:
“What should I do?” she asked.
For me – someone in a constant battle of old school vs “can’t we just save them all” – this question was an anguishing one. Because I knew from experience she was not going to do anything. She was now aware that I was a vet. Her words were code, and what she really meant was “what will YOU do, Doctor?”
But, I had learned my lesson. When it comes to an animal that needs help, some people (however kind-hearted they may be) are unwilling to take on any burden. In fact, they can make a bad situation worse, and then try to alleviate their guilt by asking others to take on the responsibility of caring for a stray animal. People who don’t spend time in the world of shelters, animal rescue, or veterinary medicine don’t understand that these problems do not come with simple solutions. The dilemmas that tireless volunteers are faced with every day would knock some bleeding-heart animal lovers over.
In my experience, there are people who find it easier to pass the burden and the difficult choices on to someone else. Those who pass the buck probably sleep well at night. They pat themselves on the back for a job well done because they don’t see the outcome.
It is the people in the trenches who don’t sleep a wink.
So when this kind-hearted woman asked me what to do, I decided to take her words literally, and I let her take responsibility. I told her about the small veterinary clinic three blocks away. I told her that they are open until 5, because I saw the clinic earlier. And I told her if she is truly dedicated, she could start the process there.
I wanted to do everything for this dog. One part of me was screaming about leaving this story without a happy ending. But the other part, in a measured tone, was calmly telling me there might not be one.
For a little more about efforts on one such island to improve the lives of stray dogs, see this NPR story.